The farmers market bustles with spring bounty right about now, and home gardens soon will be giving up a premium of summer goods. But what to do with all the excess fruits and vegetables that don't make it to the kitchen table in time?
Break out a food dehydrator geared for the home and let the drying begin. The resulting foods - from dried banana chips and homemade fruit roll-ups to granola bars and beef jerky - are ideal for snacking and backpacking. Plus, dehydrating at home can help stretch that food dollar so none of your prized produce goes to waste.
Food blogger Amber Stott (awakeatthewhisk.com) uses her food dehydrator to manage the abundance from her home garden, along with her latest scores at the farmers market.
"I have several fruit trees and was running out of ways to eat the fruit," said Stott, whose "Awake at the Whisk" blog is part of The Bee's Sacramento Connect blog network.
"I thought I should dehydrate them - and buying dried fruit is super expensive. At Trader Joe's a tiny thing of dried blueberries is more than $4. I paid $20 for a whole case of prune plums at the farmers market, and (dehydrating them) has worked really well."
The process of dehydrating food removes water from edibles by managing heat and air flow, which leaves a preserved product that in some cases can last for years. It's one of the world's oldest food preservation practices, which in a primitive form simply uses the sun and air to dry meats and produce for future eating.
Food dehydrators can be found for as little as $40 for a five-tray product from Ronco. On the higher end, you can find a durable food dehydrator that's made right here in Sacramento. The line of food dehydrators from Excalibur, which are produced in south Sacramento, run from about $150 for a four-tray model to well over $200 that include a 26-hour timer and up to nine trays.
The process results in a different product than cooking in a conventional oven.
"An oven is basically cooking from the inside out," said Stephanie Raya, Excalibur's corporate chef. "The food won't be dehydrated. It will be crunchy baked. Dehydrating is pulling out moisture, cooling and drying. It's a slow and gentle process."
Though times can vary between brands, most fruits and vegetables take six to eight hours to be processed in an Excalibur dehydrator. That's about the same time it'll also take to whip up some homemade beef jerky. The prep work of slicing the produce and getting everything to fit snugly also tacks on extra time.
"It's a good project to work on with friends for an afternoon," said Stott. "After that, there's nothing to do. You just turn it on and walk away."
For fruits and vegetables, one of the main side effects of dehydration is discoloration, as seen in the browning of an apple slice that's been left out too long. It's mainly a cosmetic concern, but some steps can be taken to minimize browning.
A food-safe grade of sodium bisulfite, which is a form of sulfur, works well to prevent discoloration. However, those with chemical sensitivities and sulfur allergies would want to pass on this option.
"You can also use a spray of lemon juice and water, or ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C," said Raya. "Crush the vitamin C tablets and add to water, about two tablespoons per quart of water."
Starchy vegetables, potatoes in particular, require some special attention. Raya recommends blanching potatoes first and then transferring them to ice-cold water, which helps to prevent discoloration and ensures a crispier final product.
Also, pay attention to your knife skills. Evenly cut meats and produce are essential to get a good result.
"That's imperative to uniform drying," said Raya. "If one piece is thinner and the other's thicker, the thinner one gets done early and it will also rehydrate some of the moisture coming from the other food."
When preparing meats, Raya recommends using spices sparingly, as just a little will provide plenty of flavor through the dehydration process. For making homemade Slim Jim-style sticks, which use ground beef, incorporating a curing salt into the meat will help kill bacteria. Excalibur also sells accessories, spices and marinades for making these kinds of beef sticks and other jerky products.
Just be careful about choosing the right cut of meat.
"I use London broil or anything else that's on sale," said Raya. "Just go to the butcher and ask for 1/4 inch slices. The tip is getting the leanest meat possible. Fat over time will go rancid, and won't last as long as a leaner cut of meat."
Excalibur dehydrators have been produced on Power Inn Road for three decades, though the business was acquired by the Florida-based Legacy Companies last fall. Excalibur still manufactures more than 600 units daily at its 40,000-square-foot facility in Sacramento. From there, the dehydrators are sent to dealers and distributors and are sold online at www.excaliburdehydrator. com.
"We believe it's a great time to be in the dehydrator business," said Rick Armstrong, senior vice president of manufacturing and operations for the Legacy Companies. "People are buying them at a record pace, and we're on track this year to have the highest volume output and highest sales volume for the company."
This local angle helped seal the deal for blogger Stott, who purchased a five-tray Excalibur dehydrator.
"I always say I'm 'livin' la vida locavore' and you can't get much more local than this," said Stott.
Along with dehydrating her prune plums and prized pluots for snacking and gifts, Stott uses her bounty to take on outdoor excursions. Even scrambled eggs and spaghetti can be dehydrated and then brought back to life on the camping trail with a little water.
Dehydrated foods help keep the weight down for backpacking. And it always seems like there's plenty to go around.
"We've taken (dehydrated food) on road trips and hiking," said Stott. "We throw it in our oatmeal for breakfast and in cookies - and we give a ton as gifts for birthdays and Christmas."